This article by Haley Britzky originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.
For Staff Sgt. Ricardo Branch, everything goes back to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
When bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. special operators in May 2011, Branch was in Iraq. But his real trouble began in February 2014, when he was working as a public affairs specialist at the headquarters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) and received an email from a company commander asking him to review a media article mentioning the raid.
It was relatively routine, something Branch often did in his job. He scanned the brief article for anything concerning, and landed on one detail: the reporter had included a line suggesting the 160th SOAR was involved in the bin Laden raid. So he raised the issue in an email to the commander, Maj. David Rousseau.
That one email kicked off a chain of events that Branch could have never predicted, starting with an Article 15 and later resulting in him being separated from the service -- twice.
This story is based on official Army documents and records, emails, and interviews with Branch and his lawyer Jeffrey Addicott, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and judge advocate of 20 years. The Army declined to comment on Branch's case.
"I would say that being a JAG officer for 20 years, in 95% of the cases that the Army handles in administrative processes or criminal court-martials, they get it right," Addicott told Task & Purpose. "They cross all the Ts and dot all of the Is.
"But there's that perfect storm that occurs with a variety of factors ... He is one of those cases that is the perfect storm."
Branch never planned to join the Army, though his father, a soldier, showed him what it meant to serve.
After graduating from high school he decided he'd take a gap year and work before he went to college. He was starting to look at enrolling in a University of Maryland satellite campus when all of his plans changed, like so many young adults, on Sept. 11, 2001.
Soon, Branch's father was deployed to Iraq, and Branch was re-evaluating what he wanted to do with his life.
"Everybody was wanting justice, you know?" he recalled. "And so I decided to join the Army."
So Branch started training, working on his pushups, sit-ups, and two-mile run. He eventually enlisted in April 2003 in Germany as a public affairs specialist. He had done student journalism in high school and fell in love with it, so he couldn't imagine something more perfect than telling "the Army story."
And he was right -- from the moment he joined, Branch loved it. It was challenging, but he had great mentors, and great bosses with a "very, very strict work ethic" who helped him sharpen his skills.
"Early on, you don't really notice the value of your work," Branch said, explaining that as time went on he started getting positive feedback about the stories he was writing (he's most proud of stories like this, this, this, and this) and hearing from commanders who appreciated what he was doing.
"That was rewarding to me," he said.
So on Feb. 25, 2014, when Maj. David Rousseau emailed Branch to have him review the draft of an article for release through the Boeing press shop, Branch didn't think anything of it. The article was about Rousseau's soldiers visiting an AH-64 Boeing facility in Arizona.
"The story was a total of eight paragraphs long and was rather routine within the scope of his duties," Rousseau said in a sworn statement in May 2017. "I then sent the copy of the article to the 160th SOAR(A) PAO for review as a standard operating procedure."
Branch said in a sworn statement in August 2016 that when he received the draft from Rousseau, he noticed a line "mentioning the visiting troops helped stop a high-profile terrorist in Pakistan a few years prior."
"I told Major Rousseau and the reporter by email the Department of Defense Policy that the details and units involved in the high-profile terrorist mission haven't been released to the public," Branch said in the statement. "This was to let him and the reporter know the story was not fit for release."
"For clarity's sake, I used the unit's name in my email," he added. "I neither confirmed nor denied the mission, and only stated the news story was not ready for publication because the unit was named."
After a few weeks, Branch continued, the reporter said that they needed a response immediately or they were going to release the story the next day. Branch said his supervisor, Maj. Daniel Hill, was unavailable, which left him to act alone as he thought was best.
"I neither confirmed nor denied the event reported; only that is not clear to publish and that the reporter deleted the questionable sentence," Branch said in the statement. The article was ultimately published without the questionable information, and the Boeing employee who wrote the article thanked Branch in a 2016 email for "having me remove the reference to the team's activity prior to my publishing the story."
"Once again, the system worked!" the writer said.
Nevertheless, the month after its publication, Branch was informed by his first sergeant that he was "under investigation" due to "an OPSEC leak of classified information through an unsecure [sic] network," according to an official recounting of the incident from Branch in 2016.
"Even though the investigation had barely started, it seemed that my fate had already been decided," Branch said in his statement. "[1st Sgt. George Park] told me, 'If there was a time you wanted to get out of the Army, now is that time.'"
Efforts by Task & Purpose to reach Park for comment were unsuccessful.
Weeks later in April 2014, Branch was given an Article 15, a form of nonjudicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for "wrongfully introducing" secret information "onto an unclassified information system." Branch signed the Article 15 and acknowledged in the document that he was not going to appeal the decision. He received only a verbal reprimand -- he wasn't reduced in rank or pay, he explained in a statement in May 2015, or had any other punishment, because the command questioned "the situation surrounding this incident."
The winding road to appeal
After receiving the Article 15, Branch put in for an immediate transfer away from Fort Campbell.
"If I did something wrong, I would be crucified," he said. "So I wanted to leave immediately."
But when it became apparent he was trying to leave, Branch explained, Maj. Hill -- his boss at the time -- submitted a relief for cause NCO evaluation report (NCOER), making the argument that Branch should be separated from the Army.
In the report, Hill said that Branch's competence "needs improvement," and that he "exhibited poor judgment" in having OPSEC violations. He also said he was "inefficient in his inability [sic] to perform duties as a Staff Sergeant," despite two previous evaluations rating his competency as "excellent" and another after the 2014 incident in which a civilian public affairs employee, Nikki Maxwell -- whose civilian status was equivalent to the rank of captain -- rated Branch's performance as "among the best."
Hill's report in May 2014 rated Branch's overall performance as "marginal," the lowest score, and advised against promoting him again until he "gains maturity and accepts responsibility for his actions."
Hill did not respond to a request for comment from Task & Purpose.
In May 2015, Branch appealed Hill's NCOER for the first time, outlining the situation that resulted in the alleged OPSEC violation, and ultimately, his negative NCOER. At that point, he was working as the NCO in charge of the public affairs office at the Army base in Yongsan, South Korea.
"I ask that you consider that in the absence of orders and guidance that my actions that day were an attempt to safeguard personnel and maintain OPSEC," Branch wrote in a memo pleading his case.
The first appeal was denied. Branch said he was told the argument he'd made didn't qualify for having the NCOER removed from his file. So he started gathering evidence to help his case before submitting his second appeal to Army Human Resources Command and the Enlisted Special Review Board in August 2016.
Ironically, while preparing his second appeal Branch saw that the information he'd been trying to protect back in 2014 had actually been released years earlier -- in an official Army press release published in May 2011 -- after then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited Fort Campbell.
"The leaders' first stop after arriving was with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment compound where the commander in chief and vice president met privately with leadership and Soldiers of the 160th SOAR, also known as the 'Night Stalkers,'" the press release says. "It was the Night Stalkers who are credited with flying the mission in Pakistan that transported the Navy's 'Seal Team 6' on an operation that resulted in the capture and kill of terrorist Osama bin Laden."
Branch told Task & Purpose that had he known that information was already public -- and had been for years -- he "would have never accepted an Article 15," and would have immediately tried to appeal the NCOER.
He included the Army article in his second appeal, along with several sworn statements attesting to his character from colleagues he'd worked with in Army public affairs -- all of whom gave him glowing recommendations, showing a sharp divide between what his colleagues thought of him, and the singular NCOER in 2014.
While Hill said in his report that Branch had "reached his full potential" and that he shouldn't be sent to further professional military education "until he has demonstrated performance and potential," other supervisors said Branch was an "outstanding patriot" who "demonstrated impeccable leadership."
Another public affairs officer who knew Branch called him a "quiet professional" and urged the Army against letting "this highly potential leader drop from our ranks."
"We would be doing him, his future soldiers, and the Army a great disservice," Sgt. 1st Class Luke Graziani wrote in 2015. Graziani, now a public affairs NCO with the 10th Mountain Division, told Task & Purpose that when he heard about the trouble Branch had found himself in regarding the supposed OPSEC violation, he "could not believe that [he] was hearing reality."
"It just seemed so absolutely far-fetched and unbelievable," Graziani said in a phone interview. "But it was true. And he was really in hot water for performing his job to the best of his abilities."
Two other public affairs officials who provided character statements described Branch as an "outstanding role model" and "a dependable, honest, forthright, humble soldier" whose "integrity is untouchable."
Branch also included an email from June 2016 sent by then-Capt. Cain Claxton, Branch's boss at Fort Bliss. Claxton pushed for Branch's negative NCOER to be removed from his file, saying that it "indicated lack of competence for doing a job exactly the way we are supposed to do it."
But the Enlisted Special Review Board didn't see it that way.
In Oct. 2016, the board rejected Branch's second appeal, saying in its report that Branch didn't provide "clear and convincing evidence" that the ratings in his 2014 NCOER "were in error," and that Branch didn't provide evidence "that the contested report was inaccurate, unjust, or otherwise flawed."
Months later, Branch's case went before the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. In April 2017, a month before the board was convening to discuss his case, Branch sent an email to an official with the Army Review Boards Agency with more documentation to help his case, including the text of an Army public affairs regulation that he said "validated my case for a removal or redaction of the bad NCOER in my case," along with other media reports regarding his situation.
The official told him that the information he sent would "be made part of your case."
Then, on the day that the board met to review Branch's case, May 23, 2017, Branch received a letter from Maj. Rousseau, the original sender of the email in question back in 2014, meant for the board.
In the letter, Rousseau described the timeline of events regarding the Boeing article, and said that Branch's caution against the Bin Laden raid details "prevented any possible spillage of the sensitive information despite it having already been publicly known prior to 2014."
"In the scope of already confirmed military and civilian media sources, I ask that you realize that SSG Branch was performing his tasks the way he was instructed within Public Affairs training," Rousseau wrote. "He safeguarded information from being released of which the command and the public already acknowledged to this day."
Emails provided to Task & Purpose show that the letter was received -- but not until the day after the board met to discuss Branch's case. An official with the Army Review Boards Agency told Branch that although the board had already met, the document would be made "part of your file for any interested party to read."
By July 17, 2017, it was all over. The board denied Branch's appeal to remove the NCOER from his file. In the packet explaining their decision, the board said that the evidence Branch submitted didn't prove that the NCOER contained "administrative or substantive deficiencies," and while the character statements were noted, the board dismissed them since they were not "in his rating scheme at the time" and their views didn't "negate the ratings or comments" from the 2014 NCOER.
Branch was honorably discharged on Aug. 1, 2017 at Fort Bliss after 14 years of service and three deployments to Iraq, according to his DD-214, which says he completed his service requirement. And while the Army maintains they made it clear that Branch would not be able to re-enter the service without a waiver because he was being separated under the Qualitative Management Program – a process where a board decides if soldiers will be involuntarily separated -- his DD-214 made no such distinction.
'Brother, you ain't supposed to be here'
After his separation, Branch moved to Tennessee and began adjusting to civilian life. Or trying to, anyway -- it didn't take long for him to realize it wasn't for him.
So he went to an Army recruiting office in Oct. 2017 to figure out his options, and see what he would need to do to reenlist. It came as a surprise to Branch when the recruiter told him he had the green light to rejoin the Army.
"I said, 'Well, if that's what the Army says then that's what the Army says,'" recalled Jeffrey Addicott, Branch's attorney, saying that the two of them believed someone higher up in the Army had decided to remove the NCOER from Branch's file and cleared his record.
Branch reenlisted a few months later without a problem in Jan. 2018 and was back at Fort Bliss by May, this time working as an Air Defense Enhanced Early Warning System Operator instead of in public affairs.
He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, and has "served honorably for the last two and a half years," Addicott said.
But in March 2020 when he deployed with his unit to the Middle East, Branch realized his dilemma wasn't yet over.
He reached out to a retention specialist back at Fort Bliss to start the process of reenlisting, planning to make it to his 20 years. The sergeant he spoke with told him he'd get the paperwork together, and get back to him.
But the next day, Branch knew something was wrong.
"I received a cryptic two-word message that just said, 'Call me.' So I call him up, and I say 'Hey sergeant, what's going on?'" Branch recalled. "And he's like, 'Brother, you ain't supposed to be here.' I'm like, you know, it shook my world. I was like 'What do you mean?'"
The sergeant told Branch that he had a 9L code in his file, marking him as someone who was involuntarily separated under the QMP. In other words, Branch shouldn't have been allowed to rejoin the Army.
Branch's DD-214 didn't make note of this. The Army had made a mistake.
But Branch had made a mistake as well: When the Army recruiter in Tennessee was helping him fill out his reenlistment paperwork, he checked a box that said Branch had not "ever been rejected for enlistment, reenlistment, or induction by any branch of the Armed Forces of the United States."
That wasn't true, but Branch maintains he didn't realize the recruiter had checked that box and signed the contract thinking nothing of it. It wasn't long before Branch found himself right back where he'd been years earlier: facing separation from the U.S. Army.
'Looking at all the facts and circumstances, he's suffered quite enough'
Like the first time, Branch aggressively fought his second potential separation. He even reached out for help to Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who questioned the Army on his behalf.
In a letter sent back to Blackburn in May, an official with Army Human Resources Command acknowledged that Branch "was selected for separation" under the Army QMP in 2015, and said that he was "not eligible for any continued service, including enlisting."
But the official also recognized that Branch's "initial separation documents were issued with errors," though he maintained that Branch "was aware he was not authorized any continued service."
Lt. Col. Gabriel Ramirez, an Army spokesperson, declined to comment specifically on Branch's case, saying that "in general terms, any concealment of information that would potentially or would disqualify an applicant from service, including prior service information, is considered fraudulent if the applicant enlisted without the disclosure of this information."
A spokesperson for Blackburn also declined to answer specific questions about her support for Branch or if Blackburn believes that Branch should be retained by the Army, saying instead that the senator "worked consistently with SSG Branch and the Department of the Army to provide clarity regarding SSG Branch's enlistment and subsequent involuntary separation."
On Sept. 25, Branch went before a separation board to plead his case with Addicott's help. He provided several character statements to Task & Purpose that were also submitted to the separation board -- all from other soldiers Branch has served with who argue that Branch should be retained.
One soldier said Branch "is the type of leader that every organization strives to hold onto for as long as possible." Another called Branch "a committed NCO determined to take on any task given and perform it to the highest level of success needed." Another said Branch was "one of the hardest working and most dedicated [NCOs] that I have worked with in my 23 years of service."
Graziani, who wrote a character memo for Branch's appeal attempts years prior, told Task & Purpose that he has "never witnessed someone get screwed over" like Branch has been and that he wishes he could have appeared before the board in-person to help plead his friend's case.
"From day one of meeting him I got the impression -- which was confirmed throughout the years that we've known each other -- that he is, first and foremost, a professional," Graziani said. "He always tried to rise above all of this stuff that was happening to him and stay a good soldier, a good husband, and a good father."
Nevertheless, the separation board concluded on Sept. 25 that Branch should be honorably discharged and not allowed to finish out his current contract.
The decision then went to Brig. Gen. David Stewart, commander of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, who had final authority over whether Branch was going to be retained or not.
Addicott explained to Task & Purpose that they haven't argued against what the Army said happened -- they've admitted that Branch signed the document incorrectly, and Addicott said that yes, technically, it was fraud. But he likened it to signing a contract to rent or buy a car: while you're legally responsible for every individual clause in the contract, not many people read the entire thing.
"The recruiter pulled up his DD-214 and said, 'Dude you're good to go, you're golden. Let me check these boxes for you, come on back in, sign right here and you're in the Army now,'" Addicott said. "So that's what he did."
Instead, they argued for leniency. Addicott said the punishment the Army was looking to give Branch far outweighed what he did, especially considering his many years of service, and considering how this all began -- with a supposed OPSEC violation that, given the Army's own release of the information years prior, wasn't an OPSEC violation at all.
"It started when the Army was trying to nail him for protecting classified information, that's the irony of it … so we're going to ask for leniency, and look at your service, look at the record that you've done," Addicott explained. "The punishment doesn't match what you did … Looking at all the facts and circumstances, he's suffered quite enough."
Nevertheless, Branch was verbally notified by his chain of command on Monday that Stewart had signed off on his separation from the Army.
"In keeping with our commitment to support and ensure equitable treatment for every member of our formation, our leadership will do all that we can to take care of Staff Sgt. Branch whether actively serving and or transitioning out of the military," Maj. Roxy Thompson, a spokeswoman for the 32nd Army Air Missile Defense Command, said in a statement, explaining that Branch is in the process of being formally notified of the decision.
Still, Branch and Addicott haven't given up hope quite yet -- they expect Branch to be honorably discharged, which Addicott said means he could apply to get a waiver to rejoin in order to get to his 20-year mark.
Essentially, the plan is to do exactly what the Army says should have been done when Branch reenlisted in 2018.
"We'll jump through the hoop again if he gets an honorable discharge, and we can then apply for a waiver," Addicott explained.
The logical next question is why? Why go through trying to reenlist again? Why keep fighting something after this many years? You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who could blame Branch for walking away after being separated for a second time.
But for Branch it's simple: He still loves the Army, and he still loves being a soldier.
"When you invest so much time into something, it's a really tough decision to throw it all away," he said of his time in the service. "If the opportunity [to reenlist] is there, I think it would be foolish not to take it."
More articles from Task & Purpose: